Bryan Singer takes a break from superhero movies (X-Men, Superman Returns) to tell the story of a real-life hero.
Claus von Stauffenberg, a veteran colonel of the German campaign in North Africa, spearheaded a group of high-ranking German officers in a plot to assassinate the Fuhrer at his Wolf's Lair HQ in July, 1944.
Tom Cruise plays the colonel, a distinctive figure with his eye patch and one arm (the other lost in combat), leading a cadre of British character actors – Bill Nighy, Eddie Izzard, Kenneth Branagh and Terence Stamp – towards their doom. Tom Wilkinson plays a wavering general, while David Bamber offers a fine cameo as Hitler. Their acting isn't the problem, it's simply their unlikeliness as German officers: excepting Bamber and the lipless Branagh, who was also good as Reinhard Heydrich in the television movie Conspiracy, these Brit faces have a kind of jolly, well-fed familiarity that cuts against the Teutonic model. When the conspirators each hold up a yellow card – a signal of their allegiance – they look more like a gang of Premier League football referees doing fancy dress.
Yet Valkyrie is not without its excitements. The build-up to the pivotal moment is expertly handled (almost in real time) and for a while, agonisingly, the plot appears to have succeeded. The bomb which Stauffenberg placed beneath a conference table exploded on cue, but its ultimate aim was frustrated: they had scorched the snake, but not killed it. The film, written by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander, in its final third examines the aftermath of the assassination attempt, when the conspirators planned to initiate a coup and use the reserve army to neutralise the threat of the SS. This, too, has some potency, but without a comparable interest in psychology – the plotters' or anyone else's – it feels no more authentic than Stauffenberg's glass eyeball.